Age is a hot issue in the Democratic primary. Not between the candidates—Bernie Sanders is only six years older than Hillary Clinton--but in their bases of support. Younger Democrats are flocking to Bernie. He won 83 percent among 18 to 29 year olds and 66 percent among those age 30-44 according to the Iowa entrance poll. Hillary held her own in Iowa, winning impressive majorities among 45-64 year olds (58%) and those over 65 (69%). But In New Hampshire, Sanders won majorities not only among those 18-29 (83%) 30-44 (66%), but also among 45-64 year olds (53%), according to exit polls. The only age group Hillary carried was those 65 and older (55%).
"I know I have some work to do, particularly with young people," Clinton said in her concession speech in New Hampshire. "But I will repeat again what I have said this week: Even if they are not supporting me now, I support them."
Heading into Nevada and South Carolina, Clinton is trying out a new line of attack: labeling Sanders a one-issue candidate (economic inequality), while highlighting her own expertise of a wide variety of issues. Perhaps foremost among those are foreign policy issues, on which she has a distinctly strong resume as a former Secretary of State.
We’ve already seen some evidence of this. Foreign policy was the most-discussed issue in the February 4 Democratic debate in New Hampshire, and took up a large portion of the February 11 debate in Milwaukee, which including a surprising amount of throwback to Henry Kissinger and the Vietnam War.
Foreign policy discussion plays to one of Clinton’s strong suits among the public as well: in a December Post-ABC poll, two in three Democrats (64%) said Clinton would be better at handling the threat of terrorism. Hillary is largely seen as the more capable foreign policy leader: a November 2015 New York Times/CBS News poll found that Democratic primary voters expressed greater confidence in Clinton’s ability to handle an international crisis (53% Clinton to 16% Sanders).
There is certainly ample concern among the public about foreign policy issues. In the 2015 Chicago Council Survey, worries about a possible terrorist attack in the United States lead among 20 possible threats presented (72% a critical threat), and the sense that international terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism are critical threats increased notably from previous surveys (69% and 55%, respectively). And a December 2015 Pew survey found that 32 percent of Americans named an international issue as the most important problem facing the United States today versus 23 percent naming an economic issue. By contrast, on the eve of the 2012 elections, 55 percent named an economic issue and just 6 percent named an international problem.
However, according to exit polls, voters in Iowa and New Hampshire backed Bernie for different reasons, focusing instead on economic concerns (and, to be fair, Independent voters made a great difference for Sanders in both of these races). The November New York Times/CBS News poll found that voters believe Sanders is the more genuine candidate and is much less influenced by special interests. But as survey researchers on American attitudes toward international issues, the dramatic age differences in the caucus and primary results led us to wonder whether the foreign policy preoccupations among Young Americans (RIP David Bowie) differ from older generations.
Overall, Democrats tend to have a fairly consistent worldview when it comes to foreign policy. Self-identified moderates and liberals alike support active US participation in world affairs. Majorities of both younger and older Democrats are concerned about the rise of ISIS and about cyber-attacks on US computer networks. They share similar goals for US foreign policy: preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, projecting the jobs of American workers, and securing adequate supplies of energy. And they have similar views on the best ways to maintain US economic competitiveness: improving public education, investing in renewable energy, investing in science and technology research, and reducing the cost of attending college.
Compared to their co-partisans over the age of 45, younger Democrats are less likely to characterize the following as critical threats: international terrorism (60% among those under 45 years to 74% among those 45 and older), nuclear proliferation (46% vs 65%), Islamic fundamentalism (35% vs. 59%), and the continuing conflict in Syria (26% vs. 41%). But this is not unique to today’s youth; Chicago Council results collected over the past 40+ years show that younger people have consistently expressed less fear of threats than older cohorts.
The few clear generational differences among the Democratic electorate include younger Democrats greater embrace of the pivot to Asia (61% among those under 45 to 54% among older Democrats); and relatedly, older Democrats’ higher fear of China’s rise as a military (31% vs. 46%) and economic power (24% vs. 31%). In addition, Democrats of 45 years or older express a greater attachment to the Middle East as an area of strategic importance to the United States, including greater willingness to use US troops if Israel were attacked by its neighbors (43% of younger Americans vs. 55% of those 45 and older). While majorities of Democrats across age groups support immigration reform, eight in ten younger versus seven in ten older Democrats support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. An even smaller percentage of younger Democrats considers large numbers of immigrants and refugees entering the US as a critical threat (20% vs. 35%).
As the data show, rather than a sharp split on foreign policy between older and younger Democrats, there is instead a relatively narrow range of differentiation – and those differences are matters of degree rather than direction. Hillary will continue to tout her foreign policy expertise and her near-monopoly on foreign policy advisors. But the general foreign policy consensus among Democrats limits the extent to which foreign policy issues can be used as wedge issues to pry away Sanders supporters. And with other issues like economic growth, health care, and income inequality at the fore of Democrats’ minds, Hillary's strength on foreign policy isn't having as much of an impact.
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy.
The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion.
The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.
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